Double your sign-up rate? Practical advice for popover forms

Latest posts | By Mark Brownlow | 18 Comments | Licence this content

money springSpiders, scorpions, snakes…and popups.

Improvements to browser security largely killed the popup window, but the fear and loathing remains.

As a result, email marketers have been reluctant to use “in your face” website sign-up forms that in any way resemble those popups of the past.

But times and technology have changed.

Is this reluctance to consider more brazen approaches to sign-up forms still relevant and reasonable?

With marketers reporting huge sign-up lifts from using them, what are the impacts on user experience?

Are there any recommended techniques in this field?

I have no idea.

So I put together a panel of experts to answer a few questions on the potential and practices behind successful “popup” subscription forms. Here’s what they told me…

Popovers, lightboxes, sliders, hovers etc.

First of all, these sign-up forms are not popping up as new windows or browser tabs.

They appear as a box that fades into view or slides in from one side of the screen, usually overlaying a central part of the current web page.

This format is commonly known as the “popover”. If the page being viewed is darkened to highlight the popover box even more, then people often talk about a “lightbox”.

You can see demonstrations of these concepts here.

You’ll find other terms used, too, but let’s stick with these two.

Bottom line – are popovers leading to higher sign-up rates?

Interruption has become a dirty word in marketing, but as Martin Weigel wrote in a critique of “engagement”:

“The difference isn’t between stuff that interrupts and stuff that doesn’t. The real difference is between stuff that’s a relevant (i.e. useful and/or entertaining) and timely interruption, and stuff that isn’t.”

Normal inline subscription forms and links are easily glossed over. The premise behind the popover is that its “sudden” appearance draws attention to the subscription offer.

If relevant and timed right, it can become a useful and successful interruption.

Justin Premick, Director of Education Marketing at AWeber says:

“A visitor who overlooks your inline form (scrolling past it, for example, to read the on-page content) may be inclined to subscribe when presented the opportunity in a more forward way.”

But does it actually improve sign-up rates?

Obviously a lot depends on context and application (when doesn’t it?) but our experts report many websites seeing significant sign-up rate increases after implementing a popover.

Ernests Vaga, Product Chief Developer at Mailigen, has seen clients getting 200% to 400% increases, noting:

“Results are different from case to case, but the positive difference is obvious in all cases.”

Mac Ossowski, Director of Education at GetResponse, cites recent FMCG clients who were unhappy with sign-up rates from simple inline forms or an opt-in at checkout.:

“After implementing popovers on the home pages, the average subscription rate increase was between 250% and 300%.”

AWeber’s Premick has seen anything up to a nine- or ten-fold increase. He adds:

“…even a “mere” (by these standards) doubling of the number of interested subscribers added to your list per day would make most email marketers’ year.”

Premick also notes that the popover is a complement, not a replacement, for inline forms. After all:

“…a visitor who immediately closes a popover (as many claim to do) should still be given an opportunity to subscribe.”

So where’s the downside?

Well, there’s clearly a balance to be found.

Our fourth expert, Jim Davidson, Manager of Marketing Research at Bronto Software, says popovers can be very effective at list growth, but also “an intrusive and unexpected interruption breaking the fourth wall and blatantly exposing your marketing efforts” for the site visitor.

As a result:

“Popover implementation should be controlled, calculated, and used with caution.”

Managing that balance is the key to accelerated list growth without negative side effects. That begins with defining scenarios where popovers are particularly effective.

What scenarios are they best suited to?

Bronto’s Davidson highlights  the popover as a quick start mechanism for new lists:

“New brands or companies that are just launching an email program will commonly use popovers to quickly grow their subscriber lists. Sweepstakes are often combined with a popover form softening the blow of interrupting the user’s shopping experience.”

The idea that the interruptive nature of the popover needs compensation through a sizeable sign-up incentive is echoed by GetResponse’s Ossowski:

“I’d say popovers are suitable for every scenario in which the party that’s capturing the data can offer a tangible incentive for leaving the email address.”

He cites coupons and discount codes as good examples.

Another popular option is using popovers with search engine traffic. In particular, given the costs of pay-per-click search engine advertising, it makes sense to capture email addresses on landing pages to market to those who don’t convert immediately.

Mailigen’s Vaga has found popovers perfect for search visitors to sites that regularly publish fresh content.

If they’re looking for topical information, the option to receive content updates is a strong one:

“Popovers are a little like squeeze pages and work well if the content is worth returning for…places like blogs and news sites are perfect places to use the popovers.”

Premick suggests popovers as an approach for capturing the address of any engaged visitors before they leave the site. The caveat is that your emails must be relevant to the pages they were actually engaging with.

Equally, the popover is perhaps unnecessary if visitors are already getting a clear opportunity to subscribe anyway, such as when purchasing or registering online. And he warns against using popovers to try and compensate for a poor website or email program:

“…popover forms are a way to improve an already effective list-building and email marketing program. They will not make up for shortcomings in your traffic generation, landing pages, or email campaigns.”

He also cautions against using popovers as soon as a visitor arrives, before they’ve “…had an opportunity to read or watch the content on your page.”

Which leads us to the critical question: just when should a popover sign-up form appear on the page?

When should a popover display? How often?

The challenge is to find the point of time when a popover is most valuable and least disruptive. For example, you don’t want to distract visitors from completing an important website task.

So the right timing is, inevitably, dependent on context. As Premick says:

“The specific conditions that should trigger a popover form will vary for each business and require consideration of what your form will offer, who it will make that offer to and when is an appropriate time to do so.”

So testing is going to play an important role when implementing a popover for specific pages on your site. Nevertheless, our experts highlight good approaches to take as a starting point.

For content sites, visitors first need a chance to grasp the value of the content. So the popover should not appear immediately. Vaga recommends trying a 10-30 second delay, saying:

“…if it appears too early, the visitor wouldn’t have yet familiarized himself with the content and may not be as highly motivated to sign up for updates.”

For those wondering where to start, Premick suggests a pragmatic approach based on the average amount of time visitors spend on the page in question. Then:

“…set your popover form to appear shortly before the average visitor leaves the page – for example, if your average visitor leaves the page after 45 seconds, you might trigger your popover to appear after 40 seconds. From there, you can split test shorter and longer delays.”

Alternatively, you can use display criteria other than a time delay.

Premick suggests, for example, triggering the form when visitors scroll to a particular page location. This was something Ossowski did on GetResponse’s own blog:

“…the popovers were displayed to users that spent at least 30 seconds reading a blog post OR scrolled down to the very
bottom of the page.”

For retail sites, time delays make less sense, because they can then interfere with the buying process. Davidson explains:

“Delaying the popover means that a visitor could have already started to digest the content on your site and is prepared to shop or has already clicked through to a product page and is further down the purchase funnel.”

If they’ve started the purchase process, then the popover would get attention, but:

“…likely result in frustration rather than enthusiasm about signing up for an email program.”

He suggests displaying the popover form immediately upon arrival to your homepage for a new visitor. Equally:

“Avoid using popovers on product landing pages or interior pages of your site.”

It’s also important to avoid over-soliciting the sign-up.

A typical implementation would see a popover appear once per visit and repeated on subsequent visits if enough time has elapsed in the meantime. The definition of “enough time” depends on the average frequency and regularity of visits.

Vaga, for example, broadly recommends displaying the popover every 14 to 30 days:

“If the sign-up form appears too often, it may interfere with the regular site visitors…the month long interval would be advisable to re-invite those who refused first time, but are still returning and reading your content.”

Davidson also makes a key point:

“Definitely deactivate the popover for any links coming from your emails.”

Alternatively, deactivate popovers for existing subscribers. After all, they’re already signed up.

Inevitably, there are still going to be some visitors who find the popovers overzealous or unnecessarily intrusive. Rules on frequency rely on cookies, for example, which can be deleted or rejected.

But is this a serious issue, assuming you’ve taken care with your implementation?

Are there negative impacts?

There are actually two issues here: the impacts on website behavior and the impacts on list quality.

GetResponse’s Ossowski tells us:

“I have a quite solid hands-on experience with implementing popovers and I have to say that I never noticed any significant drop in the number of visitors, time spent on a website or a soaring bounce rate.”

Intelligent implementation keeps negative responses down and he suggests the wariness about such responses is largely historical:

“I really think there are many myths surrounding popovers that go back to 1998 when they were not only aggressive, but also stood on the verge of blackhat gimmicks (we all remember pop-ups jumping right in your face making it nearly impossible to leave a website).”

Mailigen’s Vaga agrees:

“Testing a popover lightbox that is easy to close in case the visitor doesn’t want to sign up has not shown any negative behavior from users”

But he recommends testing how the popover, display frequency and “time delay before displaying” affects visitor stats before committing.

And list quality?

AWeber’s Premick says he’s not heard any marketer using popovers claim that list quality declined after implementing them.

“It seems to me that if you’re providing valuable emails to subscribers, and setting expectations properly, a popover form will lead to similar quality subscribers as any other on-site form would.”

If you’re concerned about list quality, Bronto’s Davidson recommends adding subscriptions obtained from a popover form to a separate list or creating a new source associated with an existing list:

“…monitor their performance over time to create baselines for their performance, including bounce rates, abuse complaints, and unsubscriptions as well as the standard performance metrics like opens, clicks and conversions.”

If the popover relies on sweepstakes to collect addresses, then higher unsubscribe rates are likely. Davidson suggests using a series of welcome messages tailored to this specific audience to:

“…help to communicate additional information about your brand and the value of being part of the email program. This will be important since the limited space of popovers provides little opportunity to communicate this value initially.”

Which brings us to another issue…form design. Any advice from our experts?

What about the popover form itself?

The popover form needs different treatment to a standard inline form.

First of all, you need to allay the potential fear that the popover form has taken people to an unrelated destination. Bronto’s Davidson says:

“Make sure your brand name is still visible when the popover is displayed so visitors know they are on the right site.”

Since you can determine how big the form is, you typically have  a little more space to work with than an inline form. Mailigen’s Vaga says:

“It’s like a mini landing page.”

But he warns that time is not on your side:

“…it should be possible to understand the offer and be able to sign up within few seconds”

As Premick says:

“As with any opt-in form, a popover should clearly communicate the benefits of subscribing.

The onus on the marketer to do this succinctly is higher for popover forms than for a typical inline form, since popovers are by nature interruptive and will cause many visitors to react by looking for the “close” button before reading anything more than a few words.”

Vaga recommends a banner or image supporting the content, a title or call out text, a couple of bullet points and a simple form requesting no more than email and name.

Davidson echoes this advice on not asking for too much information in the popover itself:

“Popover forms should be succinct, easy to read, and require minimal effort to complete. Remember, these forms are better suited for list growth and not customer profile data.”

Both Vaga and Davidson suggest you collect more details later via welcome emails and subsequent communications, if they’re not already available in a customer database.

Ossowski cautions against the trap of using aggressive copy to match the interruptive nature of the popover:

“I believe that transmitting a positive message in the pop-over also has a big impact on it’s eventual success rate.

So, instead of yelling at the visitor: “Give me your email address”, tell them gently: “You are the chosen one! Here’s your coupon, we’ll just need your email address”.

Popovers are technically aggressive in comparison to inline sign up forms, but their CTAs don’t have to follow suit in tone.”

Davidson also has detailed advice on layout and copy, particularly for commerce sites:

  • Form Fields: Make them large! The overall theme for the form should be big, bold, and obvious.

Having larger than normal input fields will provide an immediate visual cue to the visitor that you are asking them to opt-in.

  • Large Close/Exit Button: Let people abandon your form quickly and easily if they choose to. Remember, they will still be on your site and may be clicking down the purchase funnel when you jumped in with an email sign-up form.

In addition to the inflated size of the button, use a contrasting color that makes it easy to identify. Make sure that the button is easy to click on mobile devices as well.

You also use a “no thanks” button in the body of the form to position the opt-in more as a quick question rather than a roadblock to the shopping experience.

  • Copy: Keep it brief. Find the shortest way to get your point across and potentially make the copy into a bulleted list and bolding key phrases such as “exclusive offers” or “10% off your first purchase.”

This will help the visitor to more quickly understand what you are trying to communicate.

  • Clear Call-to-Action: Yes, the visitor is enrolling in your email program, but are they also signing up for a sweepstakes? Make sure that both calls-to-action are clear for the visitor.

The form should be quickly read, completed, and submitted. You need to avoid any confusion along the way.

  • Submit Button: Make it stand out.

Use contrasting colors from the rest of the form and include some distance from the other form elements. Do not include a “reset” or “clear form” option. While this may be helpful for longer forms, there is no value added here.

  • Post-Submit Page: You can test having the form close after it has been submitted.

If you do choose this option, make sure that your opt-in language is clearly stated on the first page of the process and that you title your submit button “submit & close.”

If you do have a post-submit thank you page, keep the copy brief and, in addition to the prominent exit button, add a button to the main part of the page to “close this window and continue shopping.”

Final thoughts

I’m kind of convinced and will start testing popovers on certain areas of Email Marketing Reports in 2012. As Premick says:

“If you have created an effective email program and are looking for ways to accelerate your list growth, popover forms are an avenue worth testing.”

The key is in the testing.

What do you think?

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Permalink | December 20th, 2011 | 18 Comments »
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18 comments on “Double your sign-up rate? Practical advice for popover forms”

  1. Claudiu says:

    Hi Mark,

    I am curious if you are familiar with PadiAct ( It allows experimenting with most of the scenarios explained by you and it has AB testing incorporated into it so one can test what works best for him.

    I can say that some people manage to get a 10% subscription rate, most people get it around 5% and just a few get it under 3%.

    The best case scenario I’ve seen implemented was on eCommerce website when visitors seeing a minimum number of products but not adding them to the cart are asked if they want to receive regular updates by email.

    I mainly don’t recommend adding a pop-up on the homepage or the first page seen by a visitor. yes it increases the number of subscribers but also increases the abandonment rate, and customers might be lost like this.

    The trick is how to get subscribers without loosing potential customers.

    If you are curious about our product, I’ll gladly demo it to you.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Thanks Claudiu. Interesting: I think there’s a lot of potential to get fairly granular on when the popover appears. We come up, for example, with lots of ideas for trigger emails, many of which could be applied to the popover, too. After all, the more relevant and timely the subscription offer, the less of an intrusion/interruption it becomes.

      I will have a look at PadiAct – looks interesting!

  2. Claudiu says:

    I often compare it with offline experience in retail shops. If a consultant asks you the moment you entered the shop if he can help you, you will say yes only if you already know what you want. If not, he is annoying.

    However, if during your shopping experience you really need help and he comes and asks at that very moment, that will most likely make you buy or wanna come again to that store.

    Email subscription is not designed to offer support on the spot, like a consultant, but it can start a dialog.

    Unfortunately, very few companies see email subscription as a form of dialog with passer-by people through their online store.

    That’s why I also believe frequency of email newsletters should not be monthly, weekly or daily, but rather: frequent at moments of engagement and less frequent between such moments. (a mix of transactional and digest emails)

    I believe nobody subscribes to newsletter unless they think it can help them. The faster they get that, the more likely they will subscribe.

    And yes, it all depends on the timing, message and the style of the approach. This is what we had in mind when we developed PadiAct :)

  3. Andy T says:

    I agree that the balance is time on the site vs interruption.
    I hate it when ads appear in the middle, I more often will leave the page than close the add unless the content is that good.
    Sign-ups are less in your face because of their context. But the interruption is still an interruption.
    I’d prefer to pop them in from the right, not covering the content I’m reading and hang around and scroll with the user and occasionally, shake a little bit to get some attention :-)

    Where you have a rules manager for light boxes, they often use a cookie to hold the originating site, whether this person has visited before etc. to help the lightbox’s behaviour.
    It’s worth thinking about the new cookie rule of tracking and browser support for that which could ruin that functionality – so make sure the default setting is satisfactory.

  4. Phew! that was a long one Mark – happy solstice.

    Expansively, (song lyric pun approaching) “I don’t like spiders and snakes….” and I personally do not like popovers and more than I did whizzing java applets – because they are mostly intrusive, but I have seen lightboxes be used very cleverly when incorporated into a well designed site/form.

    I have also conducted a great deal of in-depth research into “The Engendering of Trust in Online Interactions” which encompassed sign up forms or more broadly “Engagement Mechanics” and my findings differ quite a great deal from those published above.

    Being the equivalent of the first 5 seconds of a telephone sales call (MOST IMPORTANT) I am often suprised how little investment, thought, or design is put in to sign up/registration/engagement forms.

    My study showed that it is possible to gain an increase in the number of registration realtive to site visitors, the amount of data collected and in the accuracy or truthfulness of data submitted. By focusing on well designed forms, placed in the correct location on pages (there is a little more to it) – but the cohort that had popovers with all the other page elements the same showed less form completions and less truthfulness.

    One further thought, I manage some very high volumes of client sign up data – direct into our servers – the characteristics of this data indicate that a significant percentage are now using “smart” phones and mobile devices – and this should be addressed too.

    Thanks for all your thought provoking posts Mark.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Yes, I thought I’d break my length record. But the next post is incredibly short to compensate.

      This speaks to the importance of testing and differentiating.

      The mobile aspect is also important – I’ve heard of popover implementations that essentially obscure the whole screen on a mobile device. Hoping the design testing folk can come up with suggestions on that.

      The more I think about it, the more I wonder if popovers might be ideal for triggered events. If I spend a lot of time on a page where the product has sold out, then the popover might ask if I want an email alert when the item is back in stock, for example.

      There are parallels to trigger emails.

      Thanks as always for the great comment Robin.

  5. If you find yourself often missing those special offers when the product has sold out, maybe you could opt in to get some email alerting you of special offers – I can think of a few free services who would make sure your inbox is crammed full of opportunities……

  6. Is anyone familiar with soe WordPress plugins for this functionality?

  7. That is so true, Mark. A lot many of us shy away from the email signup forms. It sure comes as across as intruding at time. But as long you implement it the right way, it works great. One thing I learned before I became a bestselling author and long before Inc Magazine voted my company as one of the fastest growing companies is that as long as we create and provide enriching and meaningful content, people will come back.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Quality content has always been my mantra for success so I have to heartily agree with you there Daniel.

  8. Dave Chaffey says:

    We’ve decided not to do this on Smart Insights (so far) since too intrusive.

    A good example of this working well – in terms of results and with nice execution around quality content is on who has built up 120K subscribers over a couple years?

    They are emailed daily too which many of us would shy away from.

    That said, I still think is a technique that’s only relevant for media sites/online publishers – it’s too damaging to other types of brands for me?

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Yes, I’m reluctant to use it everywhere, even as an online publisher. My thinking is, for example, using the technique to pinpoint very specific interests. So if someone browses several pages in the beginners section, then a popover pitching an autoresponder series on first-stage email marketing might appear.

      I do wonder though whether any strong aversion to popunders is limited to those of my Internet generation who grew up with permanent get-rich-quick popup scams being pushed in our face every day.

  9. jgarma says:

    Simply put, they bug me and only serve to negatively influence my subscribe decision.

    What I do think is reasonable is to have a popover be more of a poptease than a pop over, as in over whatever you’re reading.

    What I mean by this is those messages that come, say, from the lower right hand side of the screen and brighten to get your attention, hover for a few beats and then retreat to the sidelines if ignored.

    The visitor notices but can ignore this as it does not interrupt whatever he’s doing at the site nor does it require that she click the X to get rid of the intrusion in order to continue reading, etc.

    My 2 cents.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      I like that concept. Particularly for those sites where the audience is more sensitive to “intrusive” approaches.

  10. Andrew Stark says:

    Personally I hate obtrusive ads that stop me reading the content I want to view.

    Recently I’ve found a plugin that will allow you to make a facebook style message pop-up and you can put in text to highlight a specific part of your site.

    I use to send traffic to my fiverr gigs, but many others are using to send visitors to a proper squeeze page which has the more traditional inline form.

    This sort of thing will always be down to the owner’s preference and if they put profit before their own opinion of what is an acceptable visitor experience.


  11. Benjamin says:

    This is the best post I have read by far about pop-ups. Thank you for this complete analysis. I have had great results with pop up with +200% sign ups in one day on my ecommerce site. Indeed, it made it very easy for interested visitors to sign up.